“Cool Papa” Bell was so fast … “How fast was he?”

James "Cool Papa" Bell never hit below .300 in any season.

James “Cool Papa” Bell never hit below .300 in any season.

By Glen Sparks

James “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast …

He once scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt.

Bell was so fast …

He once ripped a line drive, legend goes, that hit him in the butt as he slid into second base.

Bell was so fast … (Drum roll, please.)

He could get out of bed, walk across the room, turn out the lights and slip underneath the covers before the room got dark. (We can thank the great catcher Josh Gibson for that one. Satchel Paige also told the tale.)

James Bell grew up in Starkville, Miss. The family lived by a local park, and young James played ball all day. At age 17,  he, along with his family, left Mississippi for St. Louis. Bigger city, better jobs. In 1922, at the age of 19, James joined the St. Louis Stars, a Negro League ballclub, as a center-fielder and a left-handed knuckleball pitcher.

They said he was “Cool” because …

He once struck out Oscar Charleston, maybe the best hitter of that time, in a tight situation to win the game. He didn’t let the pressure get to him. He was cool. (Bell also hit a home run that day.)

They called him “Papa” because …

Bill Gatewood, manager of the Stars, said “Cool” Bell wasn’t enough. His player needed something else, something to give the nickname that proper pizazz. Like “Papa.” Like “Cool Papa.”

Bell played for the Stars from 1922-31. He later enjoyed stints with the Detroit Wolves, Kansas City Monarchs, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and several other teams. Players liked to drink, carouse, and chase women (Times don’t change.) and smoke cigarettes as a way to relax in the dugout (maybe a little). Not Cool Papa Bell.

Teammate Ted Paige: “In fact, in all of the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him smoke, take a drink, or say even one cuss word.”

Well, Bell didn’t make a big deal out of that. What he learned, he learned from home. This is what he said in 1974 for Mississippi History Now, an online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society:

“My mother always told me that it didn’t make any difference about the color of my skin, or how much money I had. The only thing that counted was to be an honest, clean livin’ man who cared about other people. I’ve always tried to live up to those words.”

Bell liked to hit high hoppers into the infield and beat out the throw. He scored that run from first on a bunt against the Bob Lemon All-Stars, a team made up of major-league stars. In 1933, Bell stole 175 bases in 200 games.

He was fast all right, but Buck O’Neil noted this: “Baserunning isn’t only about speed. It’s about technique, cutting the corners and keeping your balance. And Cool Papa, he was a master at all of that.”

The great Cool Papa Bell retired with a splendid .341 batting average. He never hit below .300 in any season. Bill Veeck, the long-time baseball executive, said he’d put Bell up there with Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio on his personal list of all-time great center fielders.

After his playing days, Bell did some coaching and later worked as a night watchman at St. Louis City Hall. He lived in a tough neighborhood, went to church every Sunday, and occasionally attended a Cardinals game, largely unrecognized. Unrecognized, but not bitter about not getting to play in the majors.

“Funny, but I don’t have any regrets about not playing in the majors,” he said. “They say that I was born too soon. I say the doors were opened too late.”

Voters elected Bell to the Hall of Fame on this date in 1974. Bell’s Hall of Fame induction plaque reads, in part, “Contemporaries rated him fastest man on the base paths.”

Cool Papa Bell died on March 7, 1991, age 87, only a few weeks after his wife, Clarabelle, passed way. A statue of Bell stands outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Another statue stands outside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. He also has a plaque on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Rightly, a marker is in place at the Little League ballpark in Starkville where Bell learned how to play ball. In 1999, The Sporting News rated Bell as the 66th best player of time.

Bell was so right …

“They used to say, ‘If we could find a good black player, we’ll sign him.’ They was lying.”

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